I normally refrain from posting locations that feature on all those top 10 places you have to see in Seoul posts that are plastered all over the internet. They all feature the same places and I figured that you, the audience of this blog, would be able to figure that out by yourself and come here for different content. However, the Secret Garden of Changdeokgung Palace is so special in autumn, that this time I'm making an exception.
I honestly don't know why this place is still called Secret Garden. The name is a remnant of the Joseon Dynasty, but with the sheer amount of people that visit this place, it doesn't even qualify to be an open secret. I took the panorama above quickly between two tour groups, and still it is full of people. Don't come here and expect to be surrounded by nothing than nature and a few people here and there. That is, when you go in the weekend. During weekdays you will have more luck of having some time to yourself without being surrounded by electronically amplified tour guides and throngs of people.
Although it is crowded during weekends, it isn't overwhelmingly so. It is still enjoyable to take a stroll in the garden. The crowds have a benefit; although you are required to buy a ticket for the guided tour, you are not required to attend. At the beginning of the tour, the tour guide will state that you have two options: take the guided tour or wander around freely for one and a half hour. I guess it is a system to keep the garden accessible to the maximum amount of people without it being overcrowded. Even if that wouldn't be intentional, it is working quite well.
I'm not entirely sure how this works during the weekday, but I have been able to wander around freely on a weekday as well. I just stayed at the back of the tour and snuck out. There was nobody to give me a hard time that I was walking around without a tour guide, but that probably could depend on how many people there are in the garden. My experience in Korea is that it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, because in contrast to forgiveness, permission is rarely granted.
There are two ways to get tickets to the garden. The first is booking them online (click here to go to the reservation site). For every day there is a certain time slot where you can book tickets. However, there are just a few English tours per day and the maximum amount they sell online is 50. One person can buy a maximum of 10 tickets. You can guess where this is going. Time slots start at 10 AM 5 days in advance of the tour and tickets are sold out by 10:05 AM 5 days in advance of the tour. My advice is to keep hitting the refresh button from 9:55 AM until you see you can book your tickets and book as fast as possible.
At peak season (spring and fall) you have to be at the gate of the palace one hour in advance to pick up your tickets. The reason is there will be long lines before the cash register where you have to pay for your tickets. You don't pay for them online.
If you couldn't get tickets through the internet, don't despair. You can still get them at the gate of the palace. Just make sure you go early when you go on a weekend. That way you still have a chance to get tickets for the afternoon tours if the morning one is full. Tickets cost 2,400 won for the palace and 5,000 won for the Secret Garden. You are required to buy a ticket for the palace even when you just go to the garden, so the total comes to 7,400 won at the time of writing.
Although it is a bit crowded, the Secret Garden really has an unique atmosphere and therefore I still recommend that you visit this place. Make sure you walk all the way to the back of the garden, because there is more than one pond and several gazebos as well.
When to go
Looking at my photos over the years, the perfect time to go would be somewhere in the first or second week of November. It all depends on how soon the temperature in October drops, but since global warming is really showing its effect, I suspect that every year it will be a little bit later than the year before.
How to get there
There are two ways to get to the Changdeokgung Palace and they're fairly easy. The first is getting off at Jongno 3 (sam)-ga Station (종로3가역, subway line 1, 3 or 5), Exit 7. Walk around the bend on your right and follow the road until you see the palace right in front of you. It should take around 10 minutes if you're a slow walker.
The second way is from Anguk Station (안국역, subway line 3), Exit 3. Just follow the road for about 5 minutes until you see the palace.
99, Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 종로구 율곡로 99 (와룡동)
For more info on the palace and the garden go to the Visit Korea website.